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July 21, 2016

In yoga we preach the merits of practicing moderation in all aspects of life. However, some of the alignment cues repeated frequently in yoga asana classes miss this mark. In the interest of providing quick, concise cues, we give advice that is an exaggeration of what we actually mean. For example, if a student is hyperextending (over-arching) their low back in crescent lunge, a teacher may instruct, “tuck your tailbone.” Granted, in the moment, this cue may bring the student’s body into alignment; a student who has a tendency to tilt her pelvis forward may feel like she’s tucking her tailbone when her pelvis is neutral. However, with continued practice, this student will refine her flexibility strength, and body awareness. Then, the cue “tuck your tailbone” in crescent lunge becomes dangerous because she will remember it, take it as truth, and practice crescent lunge this way until she is corrected or injured. As teachers it is important that our cues are not only accessible and effective, but accurate.

Here are9 specific, concise alignment cues for neutral posture to add to your tool kit:

    1. “Ears above the shoulders and shoulders above the hips, maintaining the spine’s natural S curve.” Use this cue to replace cues with no endpoint, like “pull your shoulders back” and “stand up straight.” It is possible to pull the shoulders back too far and to stand up too straight, so it is important students know how far to go.
    2. “With your arms by your sides palms facing your thighs, draw the heads of your arm bones into your shoulder sockets and retract your shoulder blades until your elbows hang just behind your midline.” The shoulders are complex joints and there are many dysfunctional ways to interpret a vague cues like “shoulders back” and “chest up.” For example, a student may retract their shoulder blades with the heads of their arm bones still slumped forward in their shoulder sockets. Or, he may externally rotate his arms (so the palms face forward) to get a feeling of broadness across the chest without realigning the shoulder girdle at all. Or, he may tilt his rib cage to lift his chest, while the shoulders themselves stay misaligned and spinal stability becomes compromised. Combine this cue with #1, #3, and #4 to help students master their shoulder alignment and avoid these common mistakes.
  • “Contain the front ribs without hunching the upper back.” This cue goes well with demonstrations of what it looks like to jut the rib cage forward and to overly round the upper back. Cue #5 will help students find the muscles to do this. See #6 for more on rib cage alignment.
      1. “Broaden the chest and upper back.” This cue helps students avoid overly retracting or protracting the shoulder blades, or overly internally or externally rotating the arms. It also helps gently release the muscles that run down the sides of the neck without adding tension to the body elsewhere (actively pulling the shoulder blades down against the resistance of tight shoulder and neck muscles may actually add tension rather than release it).
  • “Tighten your natural corset.” When we talk about the abdominals, students automatically think about six packs and crunches, which is not what we want in a neutral position. Comparing the transverse abdominus (one of the major core muscles) to a corset helps students visualize its anatomy and biomechanics, which will help them activate the correct muscle.
    1. “Put your hands on your hips to feel the front and back corners of your pelvic bone. Imagine your pelvic bowl is a bowl full to the brim of water. Do not let water spill out the front, back, or sides.” In anatomical terms, the pelvis is neutral when the anterior superior iliac spines (ASIS; i.e. the front hip points) and the posterior superior iliac spines (PSIS; i.e. the back hip points where some people have low back dimples) are all level. The bowl of water (or dal, or miso soup) analogy makes finding this alignment more accessible. Once students get their pelvises aligned, you may extend the metaphor to help them align the rib cage:“The rib cage is like the lid to your bowl of miso soup. Your rib cage should be perfectly aligned and level over your pelvis so if it were possible to close them together they would fit together smoothly.”

    2. “Without changing the overall position of your pelvis, gently draw pubic bone toward your tailbone and your sit bones toward one another.” The pelvic floor is an integral part of the core and it is paramount for yogis to know how to control it to maintain pelvic stability even in the deepest of stretches. It often takes several different cues for every student in the room to understand how to engage their pelvic floor, so use everything you have in your toolkit! For students who understand where these bony landmarks are, this cue is informative because it helps them grasp structure and directions of action of the pelvic floor muscles, which helps with effective engagement.

    3. “Knees underneath the hips, ankles underneath the knees.” Because this cue is specific, it applies equally to students who tend to stand bow-legged and those who stand knock-kneed. Also, cuing foot position in terms of how the feet relate to the pelvis is more inclusive of different body types than cuing the foot position as the feet relate to each other. Think about it: With a narrower pelvis standing with the big toes touching may be a relatively neutral position for the hips; however, with a broader pelvis the thigh bones have to angle inward to get the big toes to touch, which may stress the knees (the knees are even more at risk in poses like warrior I. A common cue in this pose is to align the front heel with the back heel, which is a completely different experience at the hip joint for different pelvic widths).

    4. “Rotate your legs so the outer edges of your feet are parallel. Balance the weight on the soles of feet from front to back and side to side.” As the teacher, make sure you’re clear that this isn’t actually about the feet; the feet are a reflection of the rest of the body so assessing them is a great way to test all the alignment discussed above. When the outer edges of the feet are parallel usually this means the hip joints are neither internally nor externally rotated; they are neutral. From the cues #1 through #8, we know that the ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should be stacked, and that the rib cage and pelvic bowl should be level from front to back and side to side. If any of this is off, the weight will not be evenly distributed in the feet. Encourage students play with the alignment in the rest of their body until the weight feels balanced between all four corners of their feet.

    Please note: it is not universally bad or wrong to round the shoulders, hyperextend the low back, or relax the pelvic floor—ideally your asana practice will take all of your joints through a full, healthy range of motion. These cues are specifically for a neutral position, liketadasana(mountain pose). As with any alignment cue, those listed above do not apply to all bodies. For example, some people’s hip joints are aligned such that the toes turn out in a neutral position. It is important to collaborate with doctors, bodyworkers, and, most importantly, the students themselves to help each person find their unique, healthy alignment.

    Love your practice, and it will love you back.